Tag Archives: Jean Sibelius

Sibelius, Finlandia & the cry of freedom

     

Jean Sibelius’ tone-poem, Finlandia, wasn’t supposed to be the program headliner one recent Saturday night at the San Francisco Symphony. The main draw was the Sibelius Violin Concerto, gracefully and sensitively rendered by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, with Finnish guest conductor Osmö Vänskä leading the orchestra. Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra—they of the Great Lockout of 2012-14 infamy—literally staked his position on turning said orchestra into one of the country’s finest, resigning in protest in the later months of the lockout, only to be rehired the following April (good call), where he now continues, with the Minnesota Orchestra, to excel and produce world-class music. Particularly impressive are Vänskä’s Sibelius interpretations. No surprise, perhaps, as both hail from Finland and both have captured, in the music, the nuance, proud spirit and dignity of this Nordic country. And no piece conjures a sense of Finnish national pride more so than Sibelius’ Finlandia, a patriotic tone-poem, the seventh of seven tableaux written in 1899 and revised a year later. Coming in at eight-ish minutes (can be up to nine), it’s short. The first part delivers a brooding fanfare of horns, rumbling timpani, depicting menace, oppression that, indeed, was part of Finland’s history, through occupations by Sweden and then Russia, into the early 20th century. The middle part of Finlandia calls in strings and woodwinds, a gentler but no less affecting sound, before the piece really ramps into high gear. It becomes propulsive and spirited, with plenty of crashing cymbals and an increase in speed and intensity from the entire orchestra. And now, at its peak, comes the melody, slow and majestic, instantly timeless and memorable.

I’m going to use the words of my character, Rebecca, from Outside the Limelight to describe it, because she does a better job with it than I. At a party she’s attending, she mentions to a group that she’d recently analyzed a classical music excerpt by Emily Howell in a college aesthetics class. (Hint: Emily Howell is not a female composer but a computer program that composes original classical music.)

“So, you listened to some of the music?” the man asked.
“I did,” she said. “We compared it to two other excerpts, traditional compositions.”
“Composed by…?”
“Bach. Jean Sibelius.”
“Good, good.” The man nodded. “So, what was your verdict?”
The Emily Howell composition had pleasantly surprised her, a flood of arpeggiated piano notes hovering around a melodic theme, like something Chopin or Scriabin might have composed. The Bach had been lovely and precise, like music meets mathematics. It was the Sibelius, however, that had stirred her with its rich textures and sonorities and, paradoxically, its simplicity. There were far less notes. The melody was not complex. But the horns’ mournful call, the way they sustained one of their notes against the melody, clinging, holding on, had been the most vivid aural depiction of love, fealty and longing she’d ever heard. It had made her throat contract, her eyes sting.
“I preferred the Sibelius,” she told the man.
“Why?”
“Well, it had… humanity. It was art and evoked true emotion. Next to it, the Howell seemed like just a clever, agreeable arrangements of notes.”
“What kind of emotion did it evoke?”
Across the room, she saw Anders, smiling, engrossed in what the beautiful woman across from him was saying. Her heart gave a twist.
“Longing,” she said.
“But how was this ‘longing’ portrayed in the music?” the man persisted. “I’m guessing a minor key, dissonance of two notes, followed by resolution. A solo violin, or maybe a clarinet, a French horn. Am I right?”
“You are,” she admitted.
“So. You teach this rule to the program, which will go on to analyze the scores of any music that is considered soul-stirring, and it will find patterns. It learns to add that dissonance, a little rubato to stretch it out, or the call of a horn, and voilà, you’ve got longing.”
She hated this thought. Hated it. “No,” she protested, “that doesn’t cover it. Longing didn’t come from the instruments or the notes, it came from the man, the human composing it. I’m sure of it. Longing fills a human, it permeates their world. How could a computer experience longing or shortcomings of any type? Nothing is unattainable for a computer. You can just feed it more data.” The thoughts and words tumbled out. “Creating art requires feeling pain, having a soul that’s crammed with complex emotions that have nowhere to go but into your art. A computer can cleverly simulate art. Nothing more. Otherwise, what’s the point of being human, of harboring all that pain?”
This new thought hit her, cut into her so sharply, it made her want to cry, for a half-dozen reasons, most of them hazy and undefined, but so real, so painfully real. She knew, beyond a doubt, that Sibelius had reached from deep within his own heart, his soul, to produce this work. The simple melody was anything but simple. It evoked, in a mere handful of notes, the patriotic cry of a country’s freedom.

Sibelius had written the piece, initially entitled “Finland Awakes,” part of his Press Celebration Music suite, for an event, a covert political rally of sorts to protest Russia’s increasing censorship and other punitive measures against Finland, an “autonomous” region of the Empire. It was an instant hit. In 1900 he revised, making the seventh piece stand alone and renaming it Finlandia. Its popularity grew in leaps and bounds, particularly when the fledgling Helsinki Philharmonic, eighteen months old, took it with them on their first European tour. Suddenly the world knew about Sibelius, Finlandia, and Finnish national pride. The Russians, of course, hated this, and did their best to censor performances of Finlandia. Story has it, the Finns got sneaky and gave the piece alternative names at future performances, like, “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring,” and “A Scandinavian Choral March. The correlating hymn, too, had become a big deal. Huge. Sibelius had taken the piece’s slower melody and made it a choral hymn — although the more popular words were written in 1941 by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi. It became the patriotic cry of a nation. It defined the voice of Finland that emerged in December, 1917, when the Finnish parliament finally declared independence from Russia. It is second in importance in Finland only to the country’s national anthem, “Maamme.” (Some still would like to see it become the national anthem.)

December 6, 2017 marks Finland’s centennial. I can think of no better way to honor such an event than to share Finlandia with the world.

This is my favorite version of the choral hymn. It makes tears rise in my throat every time I watch it (and I’m going on a dozen times at this point). That nationalism can be expressed with such beautiful song, is just one more reason why Finland impresses me to no end. (Second: tied for highest literacy rate in the world at 100%. Third: most engaged, informed, prolific classical music audience in the world. Fourth: one of the highest functioning welfare systems and lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Fifth: the best front row seat for viewing the Northern Lights.)

Want to know the words? Here you go! (And if WordPress’ auto-correct made a mess of the Finnish text, apologies to all my Finnish readers out there! Let me know and I’ll fix.)

Oi Suomi, katso, sinun päiväs koittaa
Yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois
Ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa
Kuin itse taivahan kansi sois
Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa
Sun päiväs koittaa, Oi synnyinmaa

Oi nouse Suomi, nosta korkealle
Pääs seppelöimä suurten muistojen
Oi nouse Suomi, näytit maailmalle
Sä että karkoitit orjuuden
Ja ettet taipunut sä sorron alle
On aamus alkanut
Oi Synnyinmaa

Here is the English translation, although a translation never gets quite to the heart of the piece, so I’d recommend you master the Finnish language and read it that manner. Because, hey, the Finnish language looks so intuitive and translatable, doesn’t it? Kinda like Basque. Easy-peasy!

Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning,
the threat of night has now been driven away.
The skylark calls across the light of morning,
the blue of heaven lets it have its way,
and now the day the powers of night is scorning:
thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!

Finland, arise, and raise towards the highest
thy head now crowned with mighty memory.
Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!

And now, I offer to you the full version (coming in at nine minutes, so a little more deliberate pacing), which also provides a film tour of Finland and its staggering natural beauty. (But warning, the cute little animals and birds kind of kill the mood of “we, the oppressed, must struggle or die trying” patriotic fervor. Now it’s more like a Nature episode. But a gorgeous one, I might add!)

PS: Happy Centennial, Finland!

PPS: Want to hear the original Press Celebration Music suite? In truth, it’s pretty cool, because, for you Sibelius fans such as myself, there’s some new music in there that hints at what he will produce further down the road. And there’s a pretty nifty slide show that depicts different historical scenes for each tableau, which are, themselves, intended as historical episodes. Further, you can hear the original 1899 first ending.

https://youtu.be/g1uL3hkgNRE

  • Preludium: Andante ma non troppo (00:00)
  • Tableau 1: The Song of Väinämöinen (02:50)
  • Tableau 2: The Finns are Baptized by Bishop Henry (06:10)
  • Tableau 3: Scene from Duke Johan’s Court (11:09)
  • Tableau 4: The Finns in the Thirty Years’ War (17:54)
  • Tableau 5: The Great Hostility (22:57)
  • Tableau 6: Finland Awakes (Finlandia) (27:08)

Finnish perfection: the Sibelius Violin Concerto

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It’s complex, gripping, devilishly complicated, and sounds like no other concerto in the violin repertoire. Listening to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ violin concerto, you hear dark, wintry night; pure, crystalline melody above a cushion of pianissimo strings (starlight has a sound!); brooding motifs; a violin that laments but never stops singing. In the second movement, the adagio di molto, a gorgeous melody arises amid the lower voices that makes your heart swell and swell, even as it’s breaking.

“The movement is so haunting, so intense,” my violinist character Montserrat recounts to Alice, the narrator, in my novel, Off Balance. Years back, she’d performed the concerto in an international competition, under a crushing weight of anxiety and despair. “You hear the brass from the orchestra slowly building, and there you are with your violin, desperately trying to… I don’t know. Stay alive. Survive against the odds. The pain of it—I felt like a bird in the dead of winter, knowing I would die, because the cold was just too much to overcome. But you know what? I’ll bet that bird keeps singing sweetly until the instant before it dies. Because what else can you do if you were born to sing? That’s what the Adagio will always be for me. That feeling.”

More on my beloved violinist character later. First, let’s talk about Sibelius. He was born on December 8, 1865, which means in a matter of weeks, the world will be celebrating his 150th birthday. Most people talk about his seven symphonies as being at the core of his success as a composer. Some of them I quite like (No. 3 in C-Major and the No. 5, with its glorious ending). But the Violin Concerto rises above them all, timeless and omnipotent, more spiritual experience than entertainment. Commenced in 1899, completed in 1904, a mediocre premiere prompted Sibelius to hold off on publication. He revised, whittled it down, and the concerto re-premiered in 1905, this time to acclaim. And oh, what acclaim it deserves.

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Jean Sibelius is not just Finland’s most famous composer; he’s a cultural colossus, a national hero, having played a symbolic role in Finland’s quest for independence (granted in 1917). He’s a household name throughout the world, certainly the classical music world. His music is rich and unforgettable, and the classical music legacy he left behind for Finland is unparalleled in any other country in the world. (The annual Finnish expenditure on the arts is roughly two hundred times per capita what the United States government spends through the National Endowment for the Arts*. Further, Finland’s musical culture has produced more world-class composers and performers per capita than any other country.)

For being a hero and musical icon, however, the guy was human, and he struggled. For the last thirty years of his life he didn’t publish new material, although he worked away at an eighth symphony for much of that time. Like so many creative artists, he struggled particularly on the inside. In 1927, when he was sixty-one, he wrote in his diary, “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair. . . . In order to survive, I have to have alcohol. . . . Am abused, alone, and all my real friends are dead. My prestige here at present is rock-bottom. Impossible to work. If only there were a way out.” *

For many an artist, creativity tends to arise amid an environment of immoderation. That’s why you hear about alcoholism, suicide, rehab, breakdowns, among the artistic sect of the population. I’ll admit it; I myself feel manic, rather psychotic, when I’m in the process of producing my most creative work. It’s the place where you’re on fire inside. I can feel that, like a tactile presence, in good art. I can tell when an artist has gone inside the fire, trudged through the long, dark night of the soul, gotten lost in those places.

There is something immoderate about this concerto that enormously appeals to me. Something vulnerable and unspeakably beautiful, right there along something dark and brooding. They illustrate that not only do darkness and beauty coexist, they enhance each other. How fitting that a Finnish composer should have so aptly illustrated the beauty of light amid so much wintery darkness.

Listen to the Sibelius Violin Concerto for yourself and tell me what you think. Joshua Bell does a knockout job with the Oslo Filharmoniske Orkester, the young, winsome (!!) Vasily Petrenko conducting.

Ten years ago, in researching my second novel, I decided to give my character, Montserrat, the Sibelius Violin Concerto for her final piece in a competition she was desperate to win. (A long, rather dark backstory I won’t elaborate on here.) She and I both lived within the Sibelius all that fall. And the next fall, when I revised the manuscript. And the next fall, when I re-revised. And when that novel didn’t sell, I picked her and the Sibelius up and inserted them in the next novel-in-progress. She’s there, now, in OFF BALANCE. Her life is safer now, with its happily ever after, prize won, career launched, loving spouse found. It was fun to move her; I love being able to create happy endings for my characters. But at one point, my narrator Alice goads her into sharing the darker side of her successful career as a violinist. Bad girl, Alice. Your insecurity is showing.

I’ll never publish that earlier novel; it’s too dark. The characters suffered too much. But I do love the scene where Montserrat performed the Sibelius. After the months I’d spent crafting and re-crafting, it now feels so weirdly personal, as if the performance had happened to me. That’s what happens to a novelist who gets too deep into their work. Or maybe that’s what happens when you listen to the Sibelius. It has that much power over you.

So, allow me, dear reader, to share a bit more of Montserrat’s story.

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Desperate Little Secrets

The next morning— in truth, only a few hours later, Montserrat woke, and worked her way out of the unfamiliar bed, grimacing at the horrible sickly-sweet taste of alcohol in her mouth. In the gleaming marble and chrome bathroom, she looked at the stranger in the mirror and squeezed her eyes shut till the urge to throw up had passed. Then she ran the hot water till it reached scalding, scrubbed her face, her hands, until they both felt raw and tingling. She dried off, dressed and slipped out of the apartment. Outside, she walked for a mile in the drizzly, grey London morning before catching a bus to her flat. The music, she told herself. The Sibelius. The only thing that mattered. Although she’d planned to stay away from the concerto that day, competition day, it was the only place she could bear to be for the next ten hours. That, and the Bach Chaconne, the purest, most out-of-reach piece of music she’d ever played—the musical equivalent of prayer. Or confession time.

Sleep and appetite eluded her as she slowly, methodically, worked her way through a series of scales and arpeggios, then tricky passages of the concerto, then the Chaconne. Back to the Sibelius and again to the Chaconne. She grew calmer, settling into that meditative state of heightened sensitivity from where she could best perform. And then it was time.

She was the second of the six finalists to play to a sold-out crowd at the Royal Festival Hall, kept waiting an extra minute while she retched into a off-stage toilet. She stumbled onstage finally, the bright lights assaulting her, the rustle of her taffeta evening gown whispering as she walked unsteadily to her spot beside the conductor. She tuned the Vuillaume, tightened her bow an extra millimeter, then nodded to the conductor.

The opening bars were always the worst. She’d never outgrown her stage fright, even after years of increasingly high-pressure performing. She knew the stamina required for the Sibelius, even under the best of circumstances, was enormous. But her months of preparation paid off, the way she’d learned, unlearned, relearned from a different mindset, played passages backwards, even playing in the dark confines of a closet. Rote learning, and technical analysis now slipped away as her fingers landed with perfect memory and accuracy on every note. The music seeped into her, replacing her stage fright with focus.

The first movement was theatrical and epic, her violin’s solo voice flitting amid ever-building intensity from the orchestra alongside her. The passage work was fiendish—double stops with sustained trills; rapid slides from the lowest notes up to the highest, octave double-stops, all of which had to impart that ineffable sense of longing Sibelius conjured so well, a winter of the soul, haunting in its beauty, crystalline in its clarity.

The first time she heard the second movement, the adagio di molto, she’d bowed her head and wept. While she’d learned to curtail the emotion, the feeling was still there in the violin’s lament, dissonance from the brass section keeping the movement from ever turning maudlin. It was the aural representation of hope amid darkness. This then, was what she struggled with, time again time again, much like with the Bach Chaconne, this attempt to connect with something so divine, so out of reach. She could only play the music and hope her despair didn’t mar the effect. Tonight, especially, the despair.

Never before had she relied so heavily on the orchestra, nor been so rewarded by their efforts. As if sensing her failing energy, they hovered close in the adagio, then supported her in the spirited, syncopated third movement as she pulled from unknown reserves to tackle the music. For an instant, she stepped outside herself, marveling at the cleanliness of the tricky passage work, the electric mood generated throughout the hall. She observed the pale, swaying soloist and idly wondering how much longer she could last before her energy failed her.

The answer: after she’d finished. Amid the thunderous applause, she shook the conductor’s and concertmaster’s hands, managed a bow to the audience without tipping over. She made her way to the wings, which were now growing curiously fuzzy and indistinct. There, she felt arms grab at her and catch her Vuillaume as she slid to the soothing coolness of the concrete floor.

Dark, peaceful coolness.

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PS: the reference to this in Off Balance can be found in chapter 13 (roughly page 192). Want to check out the novel? Click HERE.

PPS: Care to hear some less familiar but still utterly delicious Sibelius music? Two of his shorter pieces made my list of Top 10 Spooky [Classical Music] Songs for Halloween. You’ll find them HERE.

* Factoids courtesy of Alex Ross’s informative and interesting article, “Apparition in the Woods,” from The New Yorker. The article is, itself, part of a splendid book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which you can find HERE.

10 Spooky classical faves for Halloween

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It’s Halloween, and you’re looking for that perfect spooky Halloween music that’s a little more sophisticated than “The Monster Mash” and “Thriller” and “Werewolves of London.” Look no further, friends. I’ve done my own hopping around over the past two days to see what others consider to be their Top 10 classical spooky faves. My list is a little different; some are deliciously spooky, or quirky, or even just in a minor key, but they all are still melodic and easy to listen to. What didn’t make my list are the kind of pieces you might find in horror films, with jarring dissonances and icky, creepy, in the house alone at night, what-was-that-noise-and-don’t-turn-around-right-now-whatever-you-do music. If you are looking for that, cool, go to the bottom of this blog and I will share others’ suggestions and links to others’ sites.

Here’s my list, in no particular order. Click on the title to go to the link unless otherwise specified.

  1. Paul Dukas, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (link below)
  2. Camille Saint Saens, Danse Macabre 
  3. Sergei Rachmaninov “The Isle of the Dead” 
  4. Jean Sibelius, The Tempest, Act II, particularly “The Oak Tree” and “Caliban” (link below)
  5. JS Bach, “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” 
  6. Saint Saens, Symphony no. 3, first movement 
  7. Carl Orff, Carmina Burana “O Fortuna” 
  8. Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet “The Montagues and Capulets”  (or “The Dance of the Knights”)
  9. Modest Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain  (Also known as Night on the Bare Mountain.)
  10. Joseph Suk, “Scherzo Fantastique,” op. 25 (link below)

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A few comments on some of these. I’ll start with #10, Joseph Suk’s “Scherzo Fantastique,” op. 25, which is not tenth on the list because it’s my 10th favorite. Far from it. Suk’s piece isn’t dark, really, but it’s so delicious. There is both sweetness and sorrow in it. Classical music factoid: Suk was Dvorák’s son-in-law. Story has it, however, that Suk’s wife, Dvorák’s daughter, died early in their happy marriage, and the grieving Suk (his father-in-law had recently died too) composed this in her memory, incorporating a folk tune she used to love. It’s not a complicated piece, and the key melody repeats frequently, but it’s such a infectiously delightful repetition. I just love it. So, if you like your spooky music to be on the cheerier side, check this one out. A lot of classical music fans, upon hearing this for the first time, are just agog that it’s been around all this time and they’d never heard it.

Several pieces on my list you might have heard before, but not known by name. Orff’s “O Fortuna” is in a lot of commercials; it’s strikingly theatrical and intense, very Wagnerian. Night on Bald Mountain, too, has a distinctive, memorable motif it keeps returning to, which, in the end, makes it kind of a cliché for “scary moment” scenes over the years. Give it a listen for 20 seconds and you’ll nod and say “got it.”

Night on Bald Mountain is particularly famous, as is Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for being part of Disney’s Fantasia. I guess JS Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor is also part of the movie, as well. What a great movie, really. Here’s a trip down memory lane for many of us:  Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. (PS: the introduction is in Spanish; it’s brief, don’t fret. You don’t have the wrong embed.)

I’m a big fan of Sibelius and Saint Saens and really, you can’t go wrong with any of their music. Although the two composers don’t sound anything alike, they both seem to imbue their music with a distinct character, flavor, personality. Like Grieg and Dvoràk, you hear their music and even if you’re not familiar with that piece, you can guess the composer. Saint Saens delivers a flirtation with the otherworld (maybe even the occult) that is so deliciously Halloween-y. And Sibelius is a Finnish composer (Finland’s pride and joy, for good reason), who lived in a region that is dark and cold much of the year. His music carries a brooding power that leaves room still for folkloric whimsy, and boy, do I love the melding of the two. Here’s the link to Act II of The Tempest that I promised. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLHtjlre01E  (It starts with “The Oak Tree,” which is great, and so is “Miranda,” at around 17 minutes. Be on the lookout for “Caliban,” too. Gorgeous visuals on this YouTube.)

And of course, Sibelius’ violin concerto just screams “October” and deliciously fragile, wintery nocturne. It’s got its own blog you can find here: http://wp.me/p3k7ov-y3

All right. That’s my list, and like I promised, here are “scarier” classical tunes for you, below, and a few links to other great articles and lists. Enjoy! And Happy Halloween to you. Hope you have a perfectly spooky evening at whatever level of pathos and evil you so desire.

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Scarier Halloween Classics …

  • Bela Bartòk, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
  • Franz List, Totentanz
  • Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique
  • Joseph Ligeti, Atmosphère

Here’s a great list/blog for scary classical music by Limelight Magazine: http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/features/13-scariest-pieces-classical-music-halloween

Here’s Stephen Klugewicz’ list from The Imaginative Conservative: http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/10/classical-music-pieces-for-halloween.html

Great article about horror in classical music: http://www.mfiles.co.uk/horror-in-music.htm

And in case you’re in the mood to play the Halloween music yourself with instantly downloadable sheet music, check out Virtual Sheet Music’s collection of classical Halloween tunes HERE. Best of all, it’s FREE!